I would bet my bottom dollar that most atheists active on or reading this site are very moral, good people. In fact, I would bet that rvb8, Pindi and seversky are better (morally speaking) people than I am. I would further make a bet that part of the very reason they embrace atheism is because they consider the type of “god” they have had exposure to in church or in their community would be, if it actually existed according to what they’ve been exposed to as far as religious teachings, an absurdly evil being not worthy of belief, much less worship. I would agree with them on this point – the god I perceived being taught to me in Sunday School was a ridiculously bad god and I rightfully rejected that concept of god as such.
The problem I had for many years, though, was being unable to separate my particular, childishly-developed concept of god from the idea that this concept represented all theistic thought or even all Christian thought. Although I’m not a Christian, I’ve come to realize that the concept of god that I developed in my mind as a child (whether or not it was accurate wrt what was being preached on Sunday) doesn’t even closely resemble the Christian God concept represented by Lewis or Augustine and other more sophisticated Christian philosophers. My atheistic bias against theism was based entirely upon a childishly ignorant conceptualization of what the term “god” meant.
As far as my own personal beliefs are concerned, rvb8, Pindi and seversky are probably just fine wrt their afterlife prospects (and their relationship with god) even given their atheism. In my view, atheism is no barrier to moving on to the afterlife. It will just be a little bit more of a surprise for them than some others. So, it’s not like I’m trying to save anyone from going to hell – I don’t even believe in hell (as a eternity of suffering). Others here may disagree with me on this, but I’m just letting them know I personally bear them no ill will nor do I consider them to be bad or even doomed people. They’re probably in better spiritual shape than I, even given their atheistic materialism.
Having been a very devout, analytical atheistic materialist, I speak from some experience. I asked myself repeatedly as an atheist, why bother trying to be good? What does it even mean to be “good”? What purpose does it serve? Under atheistic materialism, being good had no ultimate or inescapable intrinsic value; all “being good” could possibly achieve was some personal, temporary, subjective end. Help you to fit in and succeed in society, or make and keep friends, or make you feel better about yourself. Maybe one could even think that one is contributing to some social system that would ultimately benefit them or their children.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee in life that behaving in a way that feels good (morally speaking) will achieve anything one wants at all other than the immediate (and ultimately, illusory) physical sensation of “having done something good”. I say illusory, because everything that would occur in an actual atheistic, materialist world would all be driven by the same physico-chemical forces and they would result in whatever feelings one’s particular chemistry happened to produce. One could be Jeffrey Dahmer and feel like they were doing good. And, it would be exactly the same value of feeling as the feeling one gets when helping out a person in need; there is no higher-order judgement on the mindless effects of chemistry. It just produces what it produces.
This is the tragic nature of the good, moral atheist; they want their good acts to be somehow more real or better than an act a religious fanatic considers and feels is good, but alas, under the logical ramifications of atheistic materialism, their good acts would be the factual, physico-chemical equivalents of Jihadis who felt they were doing good by driving planes into buildings. There is no source distinction between any act anyone does. In fact, there’s no distinction between a good or evil act – they would all be relentlessly generated by chemistry and physics, as would be our perception and evaluation of those events. Calling one act good and one act evil would be categorically the same kind of evaluation as calling the shape of one leaf good and the shape of another evil. It would be a ridiculous, meaningless distinction.
So, in an actual atheistic/materialist world, what does being good achieve? Nothing. Being good or evil doesn’t change chemistry and physics one bit. What you see in the world is the world physics and chemistry produces. There is no “better” world to strive for, no utopia or better society waiting at some point in the future because chemistry and physics is not going to change in the future towards some delusional, imagined better end. Chemistry and physics are not conspiring to try and generate a kinder, more loving, more gentle, more fair human being in order to establish a future Shangri-La, and we have no power over chemistry and physics to try and generate that outcome; all of that is part of the illusion of conscious self-determination under atheistic materialism.
What a tragic plight that would be for hypothetical biological automatons; acting and thinking however matter commands but living in a delusion of self and free will as if you have a choice and as if what you do is “good” in some meaningful sense, or that it matters wrt the relentless ongoing cause-and-effect process of chemistry and physics; as if you could somehow change the course of matter from your state of internal delusion when in fact you cannot. All you can do is what it tells you; all you can think or feel or believe is what it tells you; “you” have no power over it (chemistry and physics) at all.
This logical ramification of atheism is what ultimately led to my decision to not be an atheist any more – not evidence, not fact, not even reasoned argument that atheistic materialism was irrational (I discovered that much later). No, I wanted and needed to be able to be a good person, and for that “goodness” to matter and to mean something more than the illusory self-satisfaction which is all atheistic materialism could offer. There is simply no way for the concept of good to be anything other than part of a matter-driven illusion without a god of some sort and without free will.
To Pindi, seversky and rvb8: that doesn’t mean the choice is between atheistic materialism and an unacceptable, ridiculous, evil, childish notion of god and spiritual existence. However, it is a choice between able to be good in a way that actually means something and actually matters, and only experiencing a sensation of being good whenever some particular chemical interaction dictates it and which ultimately doesn’t matter or change anything one bit.
And here’s the kicker: if atheistic materialism is true, there’s no reason not to believe in a good god worth believing in, and no reason not to believe in a good that really matters and in a free will which can make those choices, because there is no penalty for believing those things even if they are false. After all, in a hypothetical atheistic/materialist world, it’s not like you’re going to score extra points when you die for having happened to believe true things during your life.